Alexis Sanchez has one year left on his Arsenal contract, and has given no indication that would suggest that he intends to extend that.
All focus has been on how Arsenal should handle this, whether they should sell their star forward now, or keep him and let him leave in 12 months. But this assumes that Alexis himself is in a hurry to leave, which begs the question; Should he be?
It’s been 22 years since Jean–Marc Bosman single-handedly changed the way football clubs conducted transfers. He successfully argued that a club had no right to retain a player’s registration after their contract had ended, and that a player was entitled to the same freedom of movement that other people had in every other industry.
Now, a player was free to play for who he wanted to play for, just as long as he wasn’t under contract to another club. But despite gaining such an immense increase in negotiating power, the list of high–profile players that actually moved clubs via the Bosman ruling, is remarkably small.
Andrea Pirlo went from Milan to Juventus in 2011 and won four straight titles, Robert Lewandowski moved from Borussia Dortmund to Bayern and has been world class since his arrival, while Michael Ballack left Leverkusen for Chelsea and did well there. And let us not forget the time Tottenham’s captain decided he had a better chance of winning silverware if he moved only a couple of miles down the road. Cheers Sol Campbell.
But after that, there’s very little evidence of a player of Alexis’ quality and stature moving on a free transfer in the prime of his career. Roberto Baggio left Inter on a free transfer, but he joined Bologna, who most people thought were going to be fighting relegation that season. Paul Pogba left Manchester United to join Juventus. But when he left, Pogba was only a prospect, not the commercial juggernaut he is today.
David Beckham left Manchester United for LA Galaxy, but that was very much a move for financial and not competitive reasons. It remains a fact that a top level player very rarely moves clubs purely by their own volition, and a lot of why this is can be put down to the lack of one component; patience.
In America, where there is a far stronger instance of top level players moving to different teams when their previous contract ends, the premise of falling away from contention for championships is non–existent, primarily because leagues are fixed in such a way that helps spread the talent pool as evenly around the league as possible.
The very best teams find it almost impossible to keep their star players because of measures like salary caps and maximum–wage contracts that restrict how much a team can pay a player. In the NBA, for example, The Los Angeles Lakers may make three times as much money as the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the amount the can pay their players each year is the same. The Lakers can’t offer LeBron James $100million a year, even though they can afford it.
Sometimes, a team will deliberately not sign any good players for a year or two to put themselves in a better position financially to sign a star player or two down the road. It makes competitive sense for a team to lose as much as possible because eventually they will become good again, just as long as the people in charge aren’t a bunch of egotistical morons. (Sorry, New York Knicks’ fans. I really am.) Every team’s fan base will buy into the idea of ‘tanking’ for a year or two, because it’s almost a guarantee that they will eventually be good again.
Because of this, star players are able to wait for their contract to expire, safe in the knowledge that someone will offer them a maximum contract, and they’ll have the luxury of being able to pick and choose where they’ll play next. But in 2016, something out of the ordinary happened. Kevin Durant, the reigning Most Valuable Player at the time, left the team that he had been with since becoming a professional, the Oklahoma City Thunder, to join the team that beat the Thunder in what is the equivalent of the championship semi finals, the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors lost the finals that year, but had won the year before, and had a roster full of star players.
Usually, a player has to choose between getting as much money as he can in that moment and letting his new team build a roster around him for a year or two before competing for championships, or taking a lot less money and joining a already contending team. In 2016, thanks to a one–off spike in the salary cap due to a huge rise in TV rights revenue, Durant didn’t need to sacrifice money in order to join the Warriors, so off he went, and this year the Warriors romped to the title.
Whilst this was a unique situation for the NBA, the premise of being able to join a contending team whilst not have to sacrifice financially is a constant in football. Arsenal will never, ever, be able to say to their fan base that they can’t compete this year and it’s a good idea to save their money for future transfer windows. Football clubs don’t have the luxury of playing in a league that tries to make everyone as competitive as possible, it is everybody for themselves and if you don’t spend the money available to you, your rivals will gain an advantage that may never be clawed back. Just ask Newcastle United, or Aston Villa, or Blackburn Rovers, or Nottingham Forest, or any other Premier League team that once was great but now finds itself far below where they think they belong.
The fear of ‘doing a Leeds’ is palpable.
So the pressure on clubs to constantly improve, to build endlessly on what they already have, is incessant. But why should a player allow his services to be bought for a nine figure sum when he can already refuse to move? Why do players agree to transfers, even to a club that they would ideally want to play for anyway, when they can wait for a year or two and still move to whichever club they want, but receive double the salary?
Is there risk involved? Of course. Any player’s career can be ended by one tackle or bad injury, and the guarantee of a contract now instead of a bigger one in twelve months is not insignificant. But if Alexis is asking the club that pays up to £60 million in transfer fees for a £400,000 a week contract, how much could he ask for on January 1st? £60 million is £300,000 a week for four years, would you rather pay the £60 million now or wait 12 months and then offer Alexis two thirds of it to sign in 2018?
If financial gain is not his biggest worry, as seems to be the case here, then why force a move now, when you can go literally anywhere you want in a year? He can do what Durant did, go to a team that’s already star studded and only needs one last piece in order to be dominant, and still get a contract his status deserves. He has all the negotiation leverage right now, and should be in rush to use any of it.
What does this mean for Arsenal?
Ultimately, if Alexis says to Arsene Wenger that there’s no chance of him staying past this season, then Wenger has a decision to make; cash out now or keep him for a year and hopes he gets Arsenal back into the Champions League next season.
But Alexis shouldn’t say anything of the sort for the moment, and this is a good thing for Arsenal, because if they’re really good in November/December, and they look like becoming title contenders again, then he might decide to stay on long term.
Is this risky for Arsenal? Absolutely.
But Arsenal’s best strategy moving forward is to use Alexis whilst he’s here, and to try and show that he can achieve his long term goals at Arsenal. If Alexis wants to maximise his options to the fullest, he should let them. If he’s fit and healthy on January 1st, he’ll have the world to choose from. He has the legal right to see if the grass is greener on the other side, it’s up to Arsenal now to show him it isn’t.